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SEL Series – How to Motivate the Unmotivated

Strategies for Motivating Students

I remember facilitating “Girls Chat” every Wednesday when I managed a middle afterschool program. The girls seemed disinterested in participating at the start of the program. Their indifference frustrated me.  I thought what am I doing wrong?

I seemed to have tried everything: several pep- talks, lectures, demands, but trying to motivate the unmotivated with the same old tactics was not working for any of us.

So it occurred to me that I should try to understand their vantage point. Maybe just maybe, in doing so, I’d be able to better understand what could motivate them, if I took a “walk in their shoes”. Would I be interested in sitting and listening to someone talk for an hour about things I may or may not be interested in?  Did lectures make me feel any more motivated to complete a task I didn’t care much about? What did make me feel genuinely motivated?

Extrinsic motivation hadn’t seemed to work for them, and I realized in many ways it most likely wouldn’t have worked for me. What I wanted to see, and what they likely wanted to feel – was intrinsic motivation. The sense of feeling motivated from “within”.

Here are tips for understanding motivation

1. Motivation can be internal or external. We can cheer, persuade, coax and even bribe but motivation that comes from within requires interest and inspiration.

2. Appeal to everyone and engage in different modes of learning. I recognized that instructing everyone to talk for an hour engaged my auditory learning, but it left out my kinesthetic learners and visual learners.

3. Stop the pep talks and the over the top praises and start creating learning opportunities that allow your students to take the wheels. Active learning is key. 

 4. Diversify your lessons by engaging their interest. Create opportunities for students to show their artistic, tech savviness, leadership, and organization skills and abilities. 

5. Spark thought and connection. You will activate the desire to succeed without having to convince students of anything.

I know you all may be wondering what I did to change my Girl Chat program and motivate my students to come each week. So here’s the secret: I bribed them with pizza each week! No, I am kidding! I switched the focus from me being in-charge to making the space one which was inclusive and inspirational; it allowed them to bring themselves into the space, and then, the conversations truly took off.

Interested in learning more about motivating youth? Here are some articles about motivating youth.


Tiana Brown is the Assistant Director of the Norwalk Housing Authority Learning Centers


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